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Jennings v. Nash

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southern Division

January 15, 2020




         Before the Court are three motions for summary judgment by Defendant Daniel F. Nash, Doc. 153, Defendant George Knowles, Doc. 148, and Defendants Dallas County and James Rackley, Doc. 150. For the reasons discussed below, the motions for summary judgment by Defendants Knowles, Rackley, and Dallas County are granted. Defendant Nash's motion for summary judgment is denied as to Count I, but granted on Counts II, III, VI, and VII.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arose out of the 2006 death of Lisa Jennings, the wife of Plaintiff Brad Jennings. After a joint investigation by Dallas County Sheriffs Department and Missouri State Highway Patrol, Brad Jennings was convicted of Lisa's murder and was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. In 2018, the Circuit Court of Texas County, Missouri, vacated Jennings' convictions due to a Brady violation. Jennings subsequently filed this lawsuit alleging Defendant law enforcement officers Nash, Knowles, and Rackley, as well as Dallas County, violated his constitutional rights during the investigation of his wife's death and his subsequent prosecution. Specifically, Jennings alleges the following causes of action:

• Count I: 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Procedural Due Process claim against Defendants Nash and Rackley for deliberate suppression of exculpatory evidence
• Count II: 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Substantive Due Process claim against Defendant Nash for fabrication of evidence
• Count III: 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Conspiracy to deprive constitutional rights claim against Defendants Nash and Rackley
• Count IV: 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Failure to Supervise claim against Defendant Knowles
• Count V: 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Monell liability claim against Defendant Dallas County and Rackley in his official capacity .
• Count VI: Common law false arrest claim against Defendant Nash
• Count VII: Common law malicious prosecution claim against Defendant Nash

         All Defendants now seek summary judgment as to each claim against them.

         II. FACTS[1]

         a. Death of Lisa Jennings and Dallas Connty Investigation

         On December 25, 2006, Dallas County Sheriffs Department responded to a call that Lisa Jennings had died of a gunshot wound to the head. Lisa Jennings' husband, Brad Jennings ("Jennings" or "Brad"), informed officers that he had been out working in his garage, and upon returning to the house, he found his wife in their closet with a gunshot wound. Doc. 151-2 (MSHP investigative report excerpts), AGO000213-17. Upon finding her, Jennings held her in his arms prior to calling the authorities. Id. Dallas County officers, including Sheriff Michael Rackley and Deputy Scott Rice, collected evidence, took photos, and spoke to witnesses at the scene, Doc. 151-8 (2017 habeas proceeding transcript), p. 240, as well as performed a gunshot residue (GSR) test on both Lisa Jennings' and Brad Jennings' hands, Doc. 151-2, AGO000213-17. Lisa's hand tested positive for GSR, but Brad's hands tested negative for GSR. Id. An autopsy concluded that the cause of death was a contact gunshot wound to the head and that Lisa Jennings was intoxicated at the time of her death. Doc. 151-2, AGO0000289. Dallas County officials, including Rackley, Rice, the local prosecutor, and the coroner, all determined that Lisa Jennings had committed suicide. Doc. 151-8, p. 257. Her death certificate listed "suicide" and "self inflicted gunshot wound to the head" as the cause of death and noted that she had elevated blood alcohol levels. Doc. 151-3 (Lisa Jennings death certificate).

         b. Missouri State Highway Patrol Investigation

         On January 9, 2007, Lisa Jennings' sister visited the Missouri State Highway Patrol (MSHP), where she spoke to Dan Nash, a Sergeant in the MSHP Division of Drug and Crime Control. Doc. 151-2, AGO000218. Lisa's sister expressed doubts that the cause of Lisa's death was suicide and requested that MSHP continue the investigation into Lisa's death. Id. Nash contacted Rackley and requested to review the case, though the two did not know each other and had not previously worked together. Doc. 151-5 (Rackley 2019 deposition), p. 44. Rackley agreed and provided Nash with the Dallas County Sheriff s Department's reports and crime scene photos from the Lisa Jennings investigation. Doc. 151-7 (Jennings 2009 criminal trial transcript), p. 548. Among other bloodstain patterns, the crime scene photos depicted a single drop of blood on Lisa Jennings' dominant hand. Id. at 575. Nash determined that the single drop of blood was inconsistent with suicide, because the gunshot wound should have caused a significant amount of blood impact stain on her hand and arm rather than a single drop. Id. At the time, Nash had not taken a basic bloodstain pattern analysis course. Doc. 158-24 (Nash 2008 Certificate of Training for Basic Bloodstain Pattern Analysis). Nash then sought the opinion of MSHP Sergeant Roger Renken, who had more experience with bloodstain pattern analysis, though Renken did not consider himself an expert. Doc. 151-8, p. 229. Renken also determined the bloodstain patterns were more consistent with homicide than suicide. Doc. 151-2, AGO0000458-60.

         Nash spoke to Rackley about his conclusions, and Nash and Rackley determined that MSHP and Dallas County would re-open the case and begin a joint investigation into the death of Lisa Jennings, with Nash as the lead investigator for MSHP and Rackley as the lead investigator for Dallas County Sheriffs Department. Doc. 151-6 (Nash 2019 deposition), p. 106. MSHP assumed control of all of the physical evidence collected in the case and became the repository for all investigative reports. Doc. 151-8, p. 243. Over the following months, Nash, Rackley, and other officers on the investigative team participated in regular meetings and communicated updates on the investigation. The team conducted interviews with Lisa's friends and family, asking about the state of the Jennings' marriage, the alleged history of abuse, whether Lisa was making plans to move out of the Jennings' home, whether Lisa was suicidal or depressed, and whether Lisa was having an affair. See generally Voc. 151-2.

         Around March 15, 2007, Nash created a crime scene reconstruction report, wherein he detailed his basis for determining Lisa Jennings' death was not a suicide but rather a homicide perpetrated by Brad Jennings, including the bloodstain patterns, the history of marital conflict between Lisa and Brad, and the lack of evidence of an intruder. Doc. 154-2 (Crime Scene Reconstruction). The report also included two fillable forms attached as appendices that noted Nash's conclusions as to whether the evidence corresponding to a list of factors was consistent with or inconsistent with suicide, and whether any evidence of homicide was consistent with the husband or an intruder as the perpetrator. Id. Nash determined that only four of the sixteen factors were consistent with suicide, whereas ten of the factors were not consistent with suicide. Id. One of the factors listed as "Not Consistent w/ Suicide" was "Past Suicide attempt." Id. However, Dallas County then-Deputy Scott Rice contends that upon seeing Nash's report during a meeting with Nash and Rackley, he informed both Nash and Rackley that when Rice and Lisa Jennings were teenagers, Lisa had attempted suicide. Doc. 158-30 (Rice 2017 deposition), p. 11. Rackley concedes that Scott Rice informed him that Lisa previously attempted suicide, and he believes Nash knew this fact as well, although Nash disputes having known of the prior attempt. Doc. 151-5, pp. 112-14; Doc. 158-18 (Nash 2017 deposition), p. 35. Nash did not change the designation of "Past Suicide attempt" as "Not Consistent w/ Suicide" on the crime scene reconstruction report. Doc. 154-2.

         On March 26, 2007, Nash and Rackley performed a consent search of Jennings' home, seizing the black robe and slippers Jennings wore the night of Lisa's death. Doc. 158-3 (full discovery produced to Jennings prior to 2009 criminal trial), AGO0000462. Nash and Rackley discussed sending the robe in for forensic testing, and Nash later sent the robe to the MSHP crime lab for blood and GSR testing. Doc. 151-6, p. 108. Lab records indicate that Nash reiterated to the lab over the phone on June 15, 2007, that he wanted GSR testing performed on the items. Doc. 158-16 (MSHP crime lab case notes), p. 2.

         The lab found that the robe tested positive for Lisa Jennings' blood but negative for GSR. Doc. 158-4 (forensic testing results on robe). Although the lab's typical practice was to send by U.S. mail copies of all results to the requesting agency, Doc. 158-19 (interview with MSHP lab technician Nicholas Gerhardt), pp. 5-6, lab records indicate that on July 12, 2007, Nash also requested over the phone that all testing reports be faxed to MSHP Troop D headquarters, where Nash was stationed. Doc. 158-15 (MSHP crime lab case note). The lab's fax confirmations and case records indicate that lab results were faxed to Troop D on July 12 and July 17, 2007, per Nash's request, and that a phone call took place between Nash and a lab technician on July 17, 2007, regarding the faxed reports. Doc. 158-14 (MSHP crime lab fax confirmations); Doc. 158-16; Doc. 158-17 (MSHP crime lab case note). Nash received the positive blood test results but denies ever receiving the negative GSR results. Doc. 158-18, pp. 14-15. While the positive blood testing was later disclosed to the defense and used as a basis for Jennings' arrest and the prosecution's case at trial, the negative GSR results were never provided to the defense or the prosecutor.

         On January 9, 2007, Dallas County seized a computer and two hard drives from the Jennings' residence, Doc. 158-3, AGO0000287, and on February 8, 2007, MSHP performed an imaging of the data contained on one of the hard drives, Doc. 158-29 (MSHP Computer Forensics Unit summary of computer examination dated 2/8/2007). On April 25, 2007, Nash seized two thumb drives from the Jennings' residence, Doc. 158-3, AGO0000398, though there is no record of Nash submitting the thumb drives for forensic examination. Doc. 158-26 (MSHP Computer Forensics Unit Officer Cordia 2019 deposition), p. 13.

         On July 26, 2007, Nash prepared a probable cause statement in support of Jennings' arrest. Doc. 154-16 (Nash 2007 probable cause statement). The report stated that the facts supporting probable cause included the Jennings' marital strife, the bloodstain pattern analysis, statements from Lisa Jennings' daughter that contradicted Brad's version of events and that indicated he appeared to have "cleaned up" after the shooting, the positive blood results from the robe, and the fact that the gun used belonged to Brad Jennings. Id. The probable cause statement did not include any mention of Lisa Jennings' prior suicide attempt or the negative GSR results. Id. On July 27, 2007, a warrant was issued by the Dallas County Circuit Court for Jennings' arrest. Doc 154-17 (Jennings' criminal trial docket). Jennings was charged with murder and armed criminal action. Doc. 151-7, p. 1.

         c. Criminal Trial of Jennings

         Jennings' trial for murder and armed criminal action began on August 17, 2009. Doc. 151-7. The evidence against Jennings included Nash's testimony as a blood stain pattern analyst as well as witnesses describing Brad and Lisa's tumultuous marriage, Lisa's plans on moving out of the Jennings' home, and that Lisa's activities prior to her death were not indicative of someone who was suicidal. Id. at 239-89, 444-501. Rackley testified about Dallas County's involvement in the case, including the processing of the scene, that Dallas County originally determined Lisa Jennings' death was a suicide, and that prior to MSHP's involvement, Rackley did not feel strong enough to ask the prosecutor to pursue charges against Jennings. Id. at 380-443. Nash testified as to his initiation of the homicide investigation after Dallas County's suicide determination, the bloodstain pattern analysis which he contended was more indicative of a homicide than a suicide, the blood evidence on Jennings' robe, and a pre-arrest interview he and Rackley conducted with Jennings. Id. at 545-650. The forensic examiner testified detailing the autopsy results, Id. at 329-79, and lab technicians testified regarding the positive GSR test on Lisa's hands and the negative GSR test on Brad's hands, Id. at 516-532, as well as the DNA testing of the blood on Jennings' robe, Id. at 680-715. During closing arguments, Jennings' attorney remarked at the fact that MSHP had the robe in custody for over two years, and yet they had not performed a GSR test. Doc. 154-10, p. 17.

         On August 19, 2009, the jury found Jennings guilty of murder in the second degree and armed criminal action, and he was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.

         d. Post-Conviction Relief

         Jennings appealed his conviction, Doc. 154-3 (Missouri v. Jennings, 322 S.W.3d 598 (Mo.Ct.App. 2010)), and sought post-conviction relief claiming ineffective assistance of counsel, Doc. 154-4 (Jennings v. Missouri, 406 S.W.3d 52 (Mo.Ct.App. 2013)), all to no avail. In 2015, Jennings' attorney filed a public records request specifically seeking GSR results from the MSHP crime lab for the Jennings case, and the request was successful. The negative GSR results were finally disclosed.

         Based on these undisclosed GSR results, Jennings filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in the Circuit Court of Texas County, and on February 8, 2018, the Circuit Court of Texas County issued its Order granting Jennings' Petition. Doc. 154-10 (Circuit Court of Texas County 2/8/2018 Order). The Circuit Court found that the failure to disclose the negative GSR results constituted a violation of the principles in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), because the results were exculpatory, impeaching, and material to the outcome of the case. Id. At Jennings' criminal trial, the prosecution had advanced the theory that Brad's hands were negative for GSR, because he had washed his hands, and that the atomized blood detected on his robe indicated that he was in fact present for the shooting. The Circuit Court reasoned that evidence that his robe tested negative for GSR would have "substantially corroborated the inference of his innocence from the negative [GSR] on his hands." Id. at 7, 10. Further, the lack of GSR on the robe combined with the presence of detectable blood "supported] an inference that the robe was not washed or significantly molested" and that the blood detected had come from his holding Lisa upon finding her dead, making the lack of GSR evidence significant. Id.

         In assessing the materiality of the evidence, the Circuit Court determined the evidence presented at Jennings' criminal trial was "thin" and "circumstantial." Id. at 15. The Circuit Court noted that the trial judge had remarked in ruling on Jennings' motion for a new trial that "this is a circumstantial evidence case." Id. at 4. As the case was largely based on Nash's and Renken's bloodstain pattern analysis, the Circuit Court considered these opinions as well as Jennings' proffered bloodstain pattern expert and determined Nash's and Renken's bloodstain pattern analysis was "unsubstantiated and illogical opinion evidence" that "as presented at trial, does not constitute strong, credible evidence of Petitioner's guilt." Id. The remaining evidence was testimony regarding Brad's bad character, indicating Lisa's actions prior to death were not consistent with someone seeking to end their life, indicating Lisa was planning on leaving Brad, and describing the argument between Brad and Lisa the day she died. Id. at 16. Reviewing the trial record, the Circuit Court found that the non-disclosure of the exculpatory GSR results was sufficient to undermine the verdict and vacated Jennings' convictions. Id. The Missouri Attorney General declined to retry Jennings for Lisa's death. Doc. 158-22 (Memorandum of Nolle Prosequi).

         e. Materials Relating to Bridgette Maddux and Scott Rice

         Two weeks prior to Jennings' habeas hearing, on October 23, 2017, Jennings' counsel received the following email from the Assistant Attorney General:

Within the last few days, our office discovered that Sheriff Scott Rice was given a polygraph examination conducted by the Missouri State Highway Patrol in which he was asked questions related to the investigation regarding the death of Lisa Jennings. These documents were contained in a file maintained by former Sheriff Mike Rackley, who gave them to Dallas County Clerk Stephanie Hendricks.

Doc. 158-7 (email from Assistant Attorney General Coulter to Jennings' counsel). The file containing the information about Scott Rice was then provided to Jennings' counsel.

         The file consisted of a series of documents from the personnel file of Scott Rice, who during the Jennings investigation was a Dallas County deputy. Rice participated in the initial Dallas County Jennings investigation and agreed with Rackley and the coroner that Lisa Jennings' death had been a suicide. Doc. 151-8, 142-149. When MSHP first became involved and shifted the focus of the investigation to homicide, Rice informed Rackley that he still believed Dallas County's suicide determination was correct and felt that Nash's bloodstain pattern interpretation was insufficient evidence to begin a homicide investigation. Doc. 151-8, pp. 166-67. Rice requested to not be involved in the joint homicide investigation, and Rackley agreed. Id. Jennings argues the Scott Rice personnel documents indicate Rackley and Nash conspired create a false statement attributed to Bridgette Maddux that was then used to investigate Rice, and ultimately to initiate disciplinary action against Rice, all in an effort to discredit him as a potential defense witness due to his disagreement with the homicide investigation. The following facts have been alleged by Jennings to be relevant to his claims.

         (1) First Bridgette Maddux Conversation - Nash False Report #1

         It is undisputed that on May 3, 2007, Nash and MSHP Officer Crain interviewed Maddux as part of the homicide investigation. Bridgette Maddux was the schoolteacher of Lisa and Brad'sson. Doc. 151-2, AGO0000230. Nash's interview report indicates that Maddux stated that she had known Lisa Jennings since high school and believed her to be a good person and mother, that she had heard Brad Jennings was rough, abusive, and controlling, that Lisa was planning on leaving and divorcing Brad after the holidays, and that "she had also heard Lisa Jennings was having an affair with a Dallas County Deputy. We then inquired if she had heard who this person was and Maddux advised Scott Rice." Id. This May 3, 2007, interview report was disclosed to Jennings prior to his trial, but neither the report nor anything in it was used during Jennings'trial by either party.

         Jennings' habeas hearing was held in November 2017. Maddux testified there that in 2007 she did not personally know either Lisa or Brad, and that she would not have made the statements regarding their marriage to Nash. Doc. 151-8, p. 178-79. She further testified that during the interview, it was Nash who raised the rumored affair between Rice and Lisa Jennings, and she merely confirmed that she had heard the rumor prior to the interview. Id. at 180-81.

         (2) Investigation into Scott Rice allegedly triggered by Nash's false report about his interview with Bridgette Maddnx

         Upon hearing of the rumored affair between Rice and Lisa Jennings from the Maddux interview as well as from an anonymous letter, Doc. 152-1 (Scott Rice personnel file excerpts), AGO000594-95, Rackley requested MSHP Officer Rogers to conduct an interview with Rice, which occurred on July 29, 2017. Id. Rice stated that he dated Lisa when he was sixteen, but that they did not have an affair and was angered that someone had accused him of this. Id. The report of this interview was disclosed to Jennings before his trial. Despite Rice's denials, on August 17, 2007, Rackley wrote a letter to the Superintendent of MSHP Colonel James Keathley relaying the recent allegations of Rice's involvement with Lisa and requesting that MSHP investigate further due to Dallas County's involvement in the death investigation. Doc. 152-1, at AGO000561. Colonel Keathley responded stating that MSHP "does not normally investigate internal police matter such as extra marital affairs," but that they would "provide a polygraph examination to Deputy Rice on the issue of his knowledge or involvement in the suspicious death of Lisa Jennings." Id. at AGO000563.

         Rice took a polygraph test administered by MSHP inquiring as to Rice's knowledge of and involvement in the potential homicide of Lisa Jennings, but the results were inconclusive. Id. at AGO000596. Over the next six weeks, Rackley repeatedly requested that Rice take a second polygraph or risk facing discipline for insubordinate behavior. Id. at AGO000565-73. In the series of letters and memoranda taken from Rice's personnel file documenting Rice and Rackley's communication during this period, Rice repeatedly reiterated to Rackley that he believed Rackley was pursuing the investigation against him because Rice planned to run against Rackley for Dallas County Sheriff in 2008. Id. at AGO000569-570, AGO000572. In two letters from Rice's attorney to Rackley on October 22 and October 24, 2007, Rice's attorney reiterated Rice's belief that Rackley's investigation was politically motivated. Id. at AGO000574-75, AGO000614.

         (3) Second Bridgette Maddux Conversation - Nash False Report #2

         During this period, Nash reported to Rackley that he had received a call on August 21, 2007, from Bridgette Maddux in which she stated that Rice had confronted her about her May 3, 2007, interview that discussed Rice's rumored affair with Lisa Jennings. Id. at AGO000567. On October 17, 2007, Nash wrote an interoffice memorandum to Rackley detailing this alleged conversation per Rackley's request. Id. at AGO000616. Nash wrote that "Maddux stated that Scott Rice knows about her conversation with me and had confronted her about the said conversation. Maddux stated that Rice is very upset with her and that her child is in class with Rice's wife. Maddux was very upset that Rice is telling people around town telling that she is trying to ruin his life." Id.

         Maddux denies having ever made those statements. Doc. 151-8, pp. 181-82. Though Maddux does not recall the precise dates, at some point during this time period Maddux was informed of a rumor that she had made a complaint against Rice for harassing her. Doc. 151-13 (Maddux 2019 deposition), pp. 16-17. Maddux claims she informed Nash once and repeatedly conveyed to Rackley that she had never lodged a complaint against Rice and that Rice had never confronted her. Doc. 151-8, p. 183; Doc. 151-13, pp. 24-34. Despite this, Rackley continued to contact Maddux and to say he had been given information that Maddux made a complaint that Rice was harassing her. Doc. 151-13, pp. 24-34. Maddux perceived Rackley as "trying to convince [her] that Scott was harassing or whatever [Rackley] was claiming him to be doing. And [Maddux] assured [Rackley] that [she] did not in any way feel that way." Id. at 36. Rackley's records reflect that sometime around October 10, 2007, Rackley began reprimanding Rice for this alleged confrontation with Maddux, claiming that Rice had been insubordinate in light of Rackley's prior order to Rice to not interfere with the MSHP investigation into his rumored involvement with Lisa. Doc. 152-1, AGO000567-69.

         Although Maddux does not remember the dates that she first informed Rackley that Rice had not confronted her, the Rice personnel documents indicate that Rackley was on notice at some time prior to October 24, 2007. On this date, Rice's attorney contacted Rackley regarding the alleged Maddux complaint against Rice with the letter subject heading, "Rice v. Mike Rackley; Employment issue." Doc. 152-1, p. AGO000614-15. The letter noted that Maddux had "requested a copy of the report of Nash of a purported complaint against Mr. Rice, and it has not been provided. Ms. Maddux has personally informed you that the purported complaint made by her against Mr. Rice is a falsification." Id. The following day, on October 25, 2007, the assistant to the Dallas County prosecutor Wayne Rieschel emailed Rackley to inform him that "John Maddux called this morning and left the message for Wayne that he wanted for you to stop calling/harassing him and Brigitte and if it did not stop, he would consider filing suit and he would be discussing it with the county commissioners." Id. at AGO000576. At some point during this period, Maddux's state representative also contacted Rackley on her behalf after she requested that he obtain a copy of the complaint attributed to her. Doc. 151-13, pp. 21-23. The Representative reported to Maddux that during his conversation with Rackley, Rackley held up piece of paper which Rackley stated was a complaint made by Maddux against Rice, but that Rackley would not give the Representative a copy of the complaint.[2] Id.

         (4) Rackley's initiation of disciplinary action against Rice

         The exchanges between Rackley and Rice came to a head when on November 1, 2007, Rackley wrote a letter to Rice notifying Rice of Rackley's intent to begin the disciplinary process for Rice's alleged violations of the Dallas County Rules of Conduct related to the Jennings investigation. Id. at AGO000579-81. The letter lists ten violations that Rackley claims are supported by "substantial evidence," including:

"4. You violated a direct order and confronted witness Bridgett Maddux regarding statements she made to the Highway Patrol in the course of the Jennings investigation...
5. You have been insubordinate to me in speech, attitude and actions in the course of the Jennings investigation by objecting to my decision to include the Highway Patrol in the investigation- contacting witness Maddux in direct violation of my orders; by failing to be ...

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